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Is your Home Group Really Necessary?

By David Jackman.

I imagine that most church leaders and congregations would be inclined to answer the question with a resounding 'Yes'. In the past 25 years, house groups have become an indispensable part of British church life. Ministers who can remember back to the time when the mid-week meeting was a central gathering, at which a third sermon or Bible study was required, heave a sigh of relief that the load has been lifted. With the rediscovery of 'every member ministry', and the utilisation of gifts within the body for mutual upbuilding, church members have come to value the relational context of the small group as a place for learning, fellowship, support and empathy. The cell has become a vital third focus, alongside the congregation and celebration, in church growth orthodoxy for a healthy, growing church. But let us look a little closer ...

Wednesday night comes around all too quickly and as Bill is inching through the traffic jam on his way home from work, he has that growing uneasiness inside him that he should have prepared the Bible study passage a bit more thoroughly. There's some tricky stuff in Habakkuk, and he supposes Colin will bring his multi-verson Bible and throw the usual spanner in the works, not to mention Jenny with that commentary she inherited from her great aunt. Why is the traffic always so heavy on Wednesdays? Arriving late, he finds Carol upstairs with the kids, at least with Kirsty who has been sick, while Pete & Nick are 'killing' each other in the living room. No time to give Habakkuk another look now - they'll be arriving in half an hour. Grab the meal from the microwave, get the kids sorted out, starting their homework or on the way to bed ...

Forty-five minutes later, the coffee (first round) has been served and the study is under weigh. Not a bad turn-out tonight. They've been together five or six years now. Its funny how a group 'jells'. Not that new people don't come, but they never seem to stick it. Either Margaret pins them to the wall with her views about the future of Israel, or Sheila overwhelms them with her personality problems, week after week, or Colin is just plain rude to them. No staying power - that's the problem these days. Ah well, back to business. 'So, Colin, you were saying what verse 5 means to you'. 'Yes, I think it refers to God's devastating judgment destroying the Jews, like the holocaust, really'. 'Mmm, yes; Margaret?' 'Well, of course I respect Colin's wisdom, of course, but to me it means that God is going to do something wonderfully new with the Jews, to bless them and restore them to prosperity in the land. Don't you believe that Colin?' 'Not at all.' 'OK well I think both your comments are really helpful, in their own way, of course. Shall we go on to verse 6?'

We are not, I suspect, a million miles from the reality in Bill and Carol's home on Wednesday evenings. House groups might actually be doing our churches more harm that good. They take a great deal of care and attention; they need to be serviced, regularly. So let's put them through an MOT check-list. Are your house groups really roadworthy?

1. Purpose

Why do we meet and what do we expect to achieve? Evangelicals are brilliant at creating meetings for their own sake, especially if they are exclusively with other Christians. This prevents us from having enough time to get to know our 'not yet Christian' neighbours and contacts. Is it just a clubby evening - a sort of spiritual 'bingo' function, getting us out of the house and meeting people? The name we give the groups will tell us a lot. Are they 'Bible study groups' or 'fellowship groups' or 'home groups' or what? Whenever Christians meet, their Biblical priorities must include listening together to God in his Word and speaking to him in prayer. And the 'together' ingredient means that all sorts of mutual encouragement, correction, enlightenment and support become possible. Without too much rigidity of structure, since every group will develop its own dynamics, we ought to insist on these ingredients and assess regularly how each group is doing.

2. Leaders

These are key people in the whole infra-structure of the congregation. They are a very precious resource, and they deserve all the support and encouragement they can be given. In the nature of things, they will be among the most mature and committed of the church's members, and if they become discouraged and depressed, the knock-on effects can be huge. Never undervalue them or underestimate their influence. They need to be cared for and nurtured, in their strategic role.

The selection of leaders is critical. Don't give people the job because it will 'do them good'. It may not do anybody else good! Don't expect them to commit themselves indefinitely. In some churches, stepping down from leadership is tantamount to apostasy, which effectively deters anyone from wanting to take up leadership in the first place! Be committed to your leaders. Train them, with regular sessions on how to do the job better. Value them, by giving them the best support tools and materials available. Listen to them. Give them opportunity to unburden themselves about the group, in more than a passing comment on Sunday. Discuss the problems and pray them through. Keep them thinking both creatively and critically about the group and how it is developing.

This will mean setting up a structure whereby every house group leader has someone to whom he or she reports regularly and who is a resource person. It does not have to be a full-time staff member, though in a large congregation this is almost a job in itself, but it does have to be more than a listening ear. Your best leaders will probably make the best resourcers of others.

3. Cohesion

By this I mean that no house group should be allowed to be an island, sufficient on its own. Churches have been split by renegade groups, 'agin the government', becoming centres of discontent, which have eventually led to unilateral declarations of independence. The loyalty of the leaders, to the church and its central life and structures, is essential. The groups should strengthen the sense of belonging to the church, not provide a substitute. There is a great deal to be said for every group using the same study materials, receiving the same church prayer requests, perhaps even listening to the same short tape in which items of church policy or new vision can be shared and explained, with discussion to follow. Use the group context to enrich the centre, by motivational input in both directions.

4. Composition

Too many groups run into the sands of boring predictability because they have been together for far too long. In a church that zones groups geographically, it is essential to ensure that membership is not a life sentence. Somehow the bag has to be shaken up and the composition of the group changed every two or three years. Some churches find it more helpful to do this annually. Then at least everybody knows that moving is a regular feature, although it may preclude the development of deep relationships. People will gravitate to homogeneous groups and will want to stay there, but paralysis easily sets in.

One way out of the problem is to adopt the motto 'Divide to multiply'. Once a group gets beyond a dozen on a regular basis, it ought to be self-seeding, otherwise the level of contribution will decrease and potential new leadership will be impeded. Groups that are looking to grow in this way will be genuinely welcoming to newcomers, who will be seen as an asset rather than another liability, which is a sign of the group being too large.

It is also worth thinking about the frequency of meeting. Weekly may be too demanding for both leaders and group. A monthly central get together can provide a necessary break, as well as stimulating the sense of belona A week off can even be a good idea! Quality is always preferable to quantity, and some objective assessment of the members' views as well as the leaders' will be vital here.

5. Study Materials

Bible study which is poorly led becomes a pooling of ignorance, which eventually devalues the currency. People come to regard the Bible as 'slippery'; you can never be really sure what it means, which is a powerful dissuader from personal Bible study too. The problem is often that we have substituted personal response for objective meaning. The exegesis of a passage is very difficult to accomplish in an untrained group, but its given meaning must be established if we are not to drift into reader-response mode (what it means to me). We must establish what it means. To do this requires good service of exegetical help to the leaders, either in outlines available commercially, or through detailed notes specially prepared, or by a tape recorded exegetical introduction (say about ten minutes worth).

Groups are generally much better at application than exegesis. Some of our most successful group series have been discussing the application of the Bible teaching given in the regular Sunday services. The preaching can be focused in that direction by suggesting applicatory questions for the groups meeting later in the week. In these practical areas, people can often help one another in much more specific ways than the more general teaching from the pulpit is able to develop. If this study time is exciting and satisfying, the group will develop an appetite to know God better through His Word and to help one another to put it into practice, in daily obedience.

6. Prayer

Almost all groups pray, but the pattern can become very predictable. It's important to bear one another's burdens, but wider horizons are needed too. A list of prayer needs circulated to all the groups can keep the focus wider than just themselves, as can adopting a missionary to pray for regularly, or using 'Operation World' to stretch our knowledge of other countries. Why not keep a prayer requests book and log the answers as they occur? Vary the timing and the format too. Praying in a triplet can help those who feel more inhibited to launch out. Sometimes the prayer can follow a time of news-sharing; sometimes it can precede the study, or at other times be a response to it. Prayer supporting members of the group in their evangelism is particularly important, since it can encourage the use of the group as an outreach base to others, and prevents members from the frequent discouragement of feeling they are 'lone rangers' in their witness.

7. Pastoral Care

Groups will not thrive if personal needs are not being met. I would strongly recommend the appointment and recognition of a pastoral carer in every group. Let the group decide on someone in whom they see pastoral gifts already being exercised. Again, it is worthwhile investing time in training such people - perhaps one evening a month for a year - so that they are given help in dealing with basic pastoral issues- bereavement, illness, redundancy, guidance, debt, family problems etc. If such people are properly equipped and recognised by the church, they can be the first port of call in all cases of pastoral need. One of their primary responsibilities will be to know when to seek for more experienced help, but they can achieve a great deal by keeping in touch with the group members, being available for 'kitchen counselling' and generally looking out for the spiritual well-being of the group members. They can also provide an informal link with church adherents, who are not yet in membership of a group, and encourage them in their direction. The load is lifted from the group leaders, who can then concentrate more on preparation of the sessions and not neglect their own family responsibilities.

Obviously, the potential of house groups is as great as ever. But when novelty become institutionalized it can easily degenerate into mediocrity. The check-up becomes vital. It is too important a potential building tool to let the house group structure fritter away its value and life in undemanding repetition and boring predictability.

The Revd David Jackman is Director, the Cornhill Trust

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You are reading Is your Home Group Really Necessary? by David Jackman, part of Issue 6 of Ministry Today, published in February 1996.

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